Category Archives: Plants

Documenting Biodiversity

Today while picking veggies in the garden, I noticed Pieris rapae (Cabbage White) sheltering

Pieris rapae 18 July 2013 Weakley County, TN

Pieris rapae 18 July 2013 Weakley County, TN

from a light rain in the tomato plants. According to Butterflies and Moths of North America this common, ubiquitous, invasive species had not yet been documented in Weakly County, so this photograph provided documentation of occurrence.

Sure, it would have been cool to see a super rare species, but even the most common and non-native/invasive species need to be documented. It also would be cool to not have P. rapae larvae competing for our bok choy. The first step in conserving biodiversity is knowing the patterns of distribution. Consider submitting photos from your backyard to – you might be surprised at how poorly documented your home county is.

107-2013-07-07 15.21.59On a ‘the bok choy is lost’ note, earlier this month I documented caterpillars of Evergestis rimosalis (another Weakley County first record) in our brassicaceous garden crops. We have also had Murgantia histrionica also come in to enjoy our brassicaceous plants.

You do not enjoy a garden alone…

Atteva aurea

Atteva aurea is a cute little moth that feeds as a larva on the introduced ornamental tree, Ailanthus

Atteva aurea on wall of gas station Martin, TN - 10 July 2013

Atteva aurea on wall of gas station Martin, TN – 10 July 2013

altissima, in the Eastern U.S. and Canada.  Ailanthus altissima is from the orient, so I had always assumed the moth that feeds on it was too. The real story is much better.

As Vitor Becker explains in “A review of New World Atteva Walker moths (Yponomeutidae, Attevinae)”:

The presence of aurea in the eastern United States and Canada and its association with Ailanthus altissima (Mill.) (Simaroubaceae) is an interesting subject to be investigated. This plant is an ornamental introduced from Asia and now considered one of the most serious weeds in the United States. It was first planted near the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, in 1784 (W. Thomas, pers. comm.) and from there it spread over the entire country. Once it reached southern Texas, where presumably aurea was already present, the moth started to move north. By 1856 it had reached Georgia, as indicated by the material described by Fitch (1856: 486). Riley (1869: 151) found it common in Missouri, feeding on ailanthus. These records indicate that this showy and common moth was absent in the region before the introduction of Ailanthus, and the approximately 70-year gap between the introduction of the host, to the first record of the moth by Fitch, is the time it took the plant to move south and the moth to move north.”

Ailanthus altissima is in the plant family Simaroubaceae.  The native hosts that A. aurea is known to use are: Castela peninsularis, C. polyandraC. emory, Simarouba amara and S. glauca – all in the family Simaroubaceae. So an introduced plant from the orient helped a tropical moth to colonize eastern North America. A much different story than I originally thought.

Some body is eating our squash bugs…

Living in the Southeast US, one of the tragedies of organic gardening is that growing zucchini is very difficult. This year’s zucchini wars have been very successful – we have gotten some squash! We started squashing adult Anasa tristis, the squash bug, in late May. Finding A. tristis egg masses has been a very common thing in our garden, but it is very rare to find nymphs.

Coleomegilla maculata eating lepidopteran eggs and mating - Kelly Tindall photo.

Coleomegilla maculata eating lepidopteran eggs and mating – Kelly Tindall photo.

Our garden has had many Coleomegilla maculata adults and larvae – perhaps they are eating the A. tristis eggs?

Kelly found a wasp (Sphecidae?) eating Ceresa festina (same family, Hemiptera, as A. tristis) in the garden – perhaps this wasp has been cleaning up the A. tristis nymphs? Or perhaps the two predators are synergistic? Possibly there may be fungus that is taking out the A. tristis?

All I know for sure is I had zucchini for dinner and the garden is working right this year!




If you look close you can see the Ceresa festina prey in the wasp's clutches! Kelly Tindall photo.

If you look close you can see the Ceresa festina prey in the wasp’s clutches! Kelly Tindall photo.

The plight of the Monarch butterfly

Danaus plexippus, the monarch butterfly is an iconic North American migratory insect that has exacting requirements of the environment. I was discussing butterflies with my friends Milus and Wanda Wallace recently and Milus pointed out how few adult monarchs he has seen so far this year AND that he has seen zero monarch caterpillars on milkweeds (Asclepiadaceae). 2013 had the lowest population of overwintering monarchs ever recorded. An NPR news report blames this on herbicide tolerant GMO crops and drought creating a severe loss of habitat (milkweeds) in the midwest.

S,o for the past couple weeks, I have been examining every milkweed patch I come across. I have found no monarch caterpillars, pupae, or eggs – even though I am living someplace new this seems abnormal. However, I doubt NPR has the correct cause(s). While habitat loss has no doubt impacted the monarch just like it has impacted most wildlife, there are other insects that are milkweed specialists that I am finding on the milkweeds I have examined. Milkweeds and milkweed habitats have not become so rare in the landscape that Tetraopes tetropthalmus and Oncopeltus fasciatus are absent. Perhaps the loss of monarchs has more to do with the difficulties of long distance migration and overwintering than it does midwestern milkweeds and milkweed habitats.

Tetraopes tetraopthalmus on Asclepias syriaca in Obion County, TN June 2013

Tetraopes tetraopthalmus on Asclepias syriaca in Obion County, TN June 2013

Hopefully, this year I will find monarchs, it will make me sad if I do not. Even though I think NPR has it wrong, Kelly has planted a few species of milkweed seeds and we are in the process of giving our home a native plant make over. Consider spots in your yard where you can enjoy a small milkweed patch(es). There is no doubt that there is much less habitat today than in the past. Your small milkweed patch can make a difference for monarchs and also attract some very interesting creatures for you to

Oncopeltus fasciatus on Asclepias syriaca in Obion County, TN June 2013

Oncopeltus fasciatus on Asclepias syriaca in Obion County, TN June 2013

enjoy in your yard.













The epic battle of the Liriope

While I can’t say I always enjoy gardening, I can say I enjoy being in a beautiful garden. At

Liriope muscari - a.k.a. monkey grass or border grass.

Liriope muscari – a.k.a. monkey grass or border grass.

our current home (in Tennessee), the previous owners seemed to think we live in the southeast – OF ASIA! The Lagerstroemia indica (crepe myrtle), that the previous owner aggressively pruned into a neither tree nor shrub-like form, has a bird nest in it (Turdus migratorius – American robin) so I will let them go a while. The Nandina domestica (shrub things) will be gone soon, but before I remove them there is the little matter of a

The thick root mass of this mature Liriope laughs at my shovel...

The thick root mass of this mature Liriope laughs at my shovel…

hundred or so linear feet of Liriope muscari (monkey grass) that has got to go. The Liriope is anchored to the earth by a formidable, impervious root system. To make matters worse the previous owners seemed to think a layer black plastic 4-6″ below the surface was a good idea. IT IS NOT! Where the Liriope has penetrated below the plastic it makes abundant little root/bulblet structures that promise if I don’t get them all I will still have Liriope to deal with later.

So, I dig up as small of chunks of Liriope as I can – these typically weigh between 50 and 100 lbs. I then proceed to separate the soil and black plastic from the roots and then go back through the soil to make certain all bulblets are removed. It is a slow tedious process, but I will prevail!

While undoing the previous landscaping is a lot of work, I am looking forward to the native plants that will soon grace the front

You had better find every one of these little guys!

You had better find every one of these little guys!

of our home. Some beds will be full sun and have prairie/glade plants like Rudbeckia and Echinacea. Some will be more like shady forest understory with Lobelia and Phlox. All beds will support more wildlife than the current landscaping and will reflect where we live in beautiful northwest Tennessee.

It isn’t that I hate southeast Asia, but I would like our home to reflect the beauty of where we live. Based on my experience, gardening with natives is slightly more difficult than garden with slightly invasive species from southeast Asia (or elsewhere). The reward comes from when a rare butterfly or cool longhorned beetle shows up in your yard. North American wildlife is in trouble, and native plants are the beginning of making things better. Doug Tallamy’s book: Bringing Nature Home presents a complete argument for native gardening. So pick up a shovel and replace one invasive plant with a native this summer! Be the change you want to see.

What does Languria mozardi eat anyway?

I know this question is a central issue that keeps most of you up at night, but it was bothering Kelly Tindall, Cory Cross, and myself. We found Languria mozardi tunneling in soybean stems and were curious as to why we found this native insect in a non-native plant. This was especially interesting to us as another stem-boring beetle, Dectes texanus, is also a native beetle that has made a switch from boring native plants in the family Asteraceae to boring stems of non-native plants in the family Fabaceae.

As we read the literature on the plants used by L. mozardi, we found things that just did not seem right. The primary clue was: Languria mozardi was using plants that didn’t exist! We then went back to the source material to try and figure out exactly what was the case for this insect. To make a long story short, by not using consistent criteria and terminology 48 plants were listed as host plants for L. mozardi when only 13 were actual developmental hosts.

So we critically thought about how insects (especially L. mozardi) use plants, then came up with a way of evaluating the source literature, then slugged our way through all the source literature, and finally developed a little paper to report our results:  Fothergill, K., K.V. Tindall, and C.B. Cross. 2013. What is a host plant? Plants used by Languria mozardi Latreille 1807 (Coleoptera: Erotylidae): a review. Pan-Pacific Entomologist 89.1:43-59.